Modern Day Slavery A wealthy New York couple is accused of keeping domestic servants as virtual slaves, luring two women into the country to work in their home. Prosecutors say they were paid little to nothing, given inadequate food, and subjected to physical abuse. Janie Chuang talks about the rights of human trafficking victims.
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Modern Day Slavery

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Modern Day Slavery

Modern Day Slavery

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I'm Michel Martin.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later on the program, a new generation of mariachi musicians moves to the head of the class in Texas.

But first, in New York a wealthy Long Island couple remains in jail for allegedly keeping domestic servants as virtual slaves. They're accused of luring two Indonesian women into the country to work in their home. The women were supposed to be paid, but the prosecutor's office said they were paid little to nothing, given inadequate food, and subjected to physical abuse, including being burned and beaten repeatedly.

But how common is this experience and why is it so hard for these women to find their way out?

Joining us now to talk about that is Janie Chuang. She's an assistant professor of law at American University. She specializes in the rights of victims of human trafficking. Welcome.

Professor JANIE CHUANG (American University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just establish what we're talking about here. We're not talking about people not getting paid their overtime, right? And we're not talking about people who may find their employers just obnoxious, you know…

Prof. CHUANG: Right.

MARTIN: …yelling or just being very demanding. We're talking about something else. And the term slavery, I think a lot of people have trouble - say how is it possible that people could actually be slaves in this country? But do you think that's the right term?

Prof. CHUANG: It's hard to say. I think the term slavery is often misused when we're talking about the trafficking context, because what we're seeing here is a very different situation than the slavery that we experienced here in the U.S.

What we're seeing here is a case of trafficking. And let me just give you a sense of where trafficking falls on the spectrum of labor exploitation. Basically you need three things in order for something to be trafficking. You need somebody who has been moved or recruited for the purpose of placing them into some sort of forced labor or slavery-like practice, indentured servitude, debt bondage - an end purpose where the person feels like he or she cannot escape from that employment situation.

MARTIN: Well, you said there were three elements to human trafficking. What are the three elements?

Prof. CHUANG: Okay. The first is the movement and recruitment of the person. Second is using some form of force, fraud or coercion. And third, for the purpose of placing that person into a forced labor-type situation.

MARTIN: How common a phenomenon do you think this is around the world, but I think particularly in this country?

Prof. CHUANG: The International Labor Organization estimates that approximately 2.4 million men, women and children are trafficked around the world every year. That includes trafficking within a country as well as across borders, because we do have a large amount of people being trafficked internally from rural regions into urban regions, for instance, within a country.

With respect to the United States, the U.S. State Department estimates that approximately 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year.

MARTIN: And those who are being trafficked, is it mainly for the purpose of servants or is it prostitution, or what are the circumstances that authorities think are driving this in this country?

Prof. CHUANG: Popular perceptions of trafficking are very much limited to sex trafficking. People think about trafficking, oh, that's moving women into forced prostitution. But trafficking is actually a much broader phenomenon. We have the trafficking of men into forced agricultural and construction work, trafficking of women - not just into the sex industry - but as we see from the Long Island case, into forced domestic work. And we also have children who are trafficked into forced begging. So it's a wide range of practices, all sharing these common elements of having been moved or recruited and placed into a forced labor type situation.

MARTIN: It seems that a number of the cases that have come to light in the United States involved persons from other countries coming here who are also bringing members of their own countrymen and women here. And I'm just wondering, are these family ties? Is there a sense of this is culturally acceptable and appropriate, or is it just easier to dominate people from your own country where, you know, you may have the ability to speak English and they don't? What do you think?

Prof. CHUANG: It's hard to generalize. I think that as a practical matter being able to recruit a foreign domestic worker requires that you have some connections to the home country, right? What's interesting about the domestic worker situation is that there's a strong demand for migrant domestic workers. We ask the question, why not hire a nanny who's from the U.S., who looks like us? There is something in the foreignness of the person that is particularly appealing to the employer. Part of it is swept up in stereotypes about that person's ethnicity, about that person's culture, that perhaps just people from this particular country may be better caretakers, may be more obedient, more servile.

The fact that they are from another country makes them more vulnerable in the sense that they have fewer choices. And so for employers, that's really attractive, because when you think about the emotional bonds that nannies form with their children, you know, employers want nannies who will stay.

MARTIN: But in this case, these women were cleaning. It seems (unintelligible) I mean they could have called like Maids on Call or something. You don't like throw boiling water on people. I guess that's the part about it that I just find puzzling.

Prof. CHUANG: The physical abuse part of it.


Prof. CHUANG: You know, I think that for the domestic worker population, you know, it's a population - or it's a sector of labor that's historically constructed as low-status work, right? And so I think that perhaps there's a perception - and there's also the sense that domestic work isn't really work, right? And so it feeds into this idea that were actually not - it's not really an employer relationship; we're helping an impoverished person from another country, bringing them into our family, creates this mutually dependent relationships.

MARTIN: What happens to these women employees? Let's say their circumstances are discovered and that they are able to, in this case - again, I think it has to be said, you know, these are allegations. They haven't gotten to trial. They have to be viewed as innocent until they're proven guilty. You know, all of that. What happens to these women who were found in this home who were believed to have been held under these terrible conditions? What happens to them now?

Prof. CHUANG: Post, you know, taking them out of the exploitative situation, they have a few options available to them. They can, if they would like, cooperate with the prosecution of their traffickers. While that is happening they can also apply for what's known as a T visa, which is a visa that allows them to stay in the United States temporarily for, you know, a few years.

And they do have the option of converting into permanent residency status. The T visa is conditioned on their cooperation with law enforcement. So they have to be involved in the prosecution, which is difficult for the victims, frankly, because there is great risk of retaliation by the traffickers.

You know, I think in this story I read reports about how bribes were allegedly made back home by the employer's family to family members of the victims. And I think part of it is that, you know, back home your families know each other, and that's a source of vulnerability for these victims - knowing that their family members back home could be harmed by the trafficker's associates or family members.

MARTIN: So what's likely to happen if they - are they likely to be sent back home? Can they stay here? Can they work?

Prof. CHUANG: It depends. Whether or not they can stay depends on whether or not they can get a T visa, but that's contingent on cooperating with prosecution. If they don't want to cooperate with prosecution, then they don't have the option to stay. Now, if they do cooperate and let's say they do get a T visa and they are able to stay, once the criminal prosecution is completed, U.S. law allows for trafficked persons to be able to bring civil lawsuits against their traffickers.

MARTIN: Has that ever happened?

Prof. CHUANG: There have been attempts to bring lawsuits. There haven't been that many cases that have gone all the way. They result in settlements. So we don't see so many reported cases. That is a strategy that advocates take, you know, after a prosecution, is to try to get some damages, to recover that money that they should have been paid.

MARTIN: Jamie Chuang is an assistant professor of law at American University, and she joined us here in the studios in Washington. Thank you so much for being with us.

Prof. CHUANG: Thanks for having me.

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